PHOENIX (AP) — Bernie Sanders ventured to the northern reaches of Arizona on Thursday night, far away from the southern metropolises that house most of the state's voters but onto the land of a key voting bloc in Tuesday's Democratic primary — Native Americans.
Sanders spoke before an overflow crowd of thousands at a casino owned by the Navajo Nation outside the college town of Flagstaff. Dignitaries from the tribe told the crowd that Sanders was the first presidential candidate to visit their land, and the Vermont Senator took the unusual step of altering his stump speech to talk widely about Native American concerns.
"The Native American people have been lied to, they have been cheated, and negotiated treaties have been broken," Sanders said to cheers. "We owe the Native American community so much."
Native Americans comprise only 3 percent of Arizona's population but they are a larger share of the state's Democratic electorate. Sanders is hoping to pull off an upset and win the state's Tuesday primary, which would be a crucial victory as the primary contest shifts toward Western states that he sees as friendlier terrain for his insurgent campaign.
Many of those upcoming states include influential Native American voting blocs, like Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota.
At the Navajo casino, Sanders rattled off a series of horrifying statistics about the dire plight of Native Americans — one in three Native women will be either raped or have to fight off an attempted rape in their lifetimes. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young Native American men.
"Native Americans continue to face appalling levels of inequality and systematic injustice," Sanders said.
He also touted a bill he sponsored to take land that would become part of a copper mine and return it to tribes that say it contains sacred sites. Sanders' wife Jane visited one sacred Apache site last week in Arizona.
Sanders was clearly glad to be in the West after a series of losses in the Midwest and South. "We think now that we are in the West, maybe the most progressive — we think that the climate is a little bit friendlier to us," Sanders said. "We think we've got a path toward victory."